Spending Money on Tools Instead of Quality

Far too often I see companies invest heavily in new tools; large databases or fancy analysis tools, or complex code or test generators.

Unfortunately, those spending the money often get things backwards. Technology is a tool, not a solution. Buying the largest, most expensive database supply chain suite for millions of dollars is not going to guarantee success. While the salesman probably told you about the impressive successes, they probably didn’t tell you about the many failures. That is because people don’t advertise p the instances where the installations did not turn out optimally or where far more was spent bringing in the new systems than were saved doing so.

Buying large systems to jumpstart improvement is what I generally call “buying enough rope” (as in buying enough rope to hang yourself)

There is an insidious unspoken assumption about technology. That is, if you spend enough money, you are liable to solve SOMETHING.

Sometimes this is true, but too often, the improvements are less than the cost of the new systems, and the money you spent on training, and consulting, and switching over to the new tools.

My philosophy is that you should start with a clear problem that you want solves, and then work on the basics. (You have to have a system before you can automate one)

Ironically you will generally find a much higher ROI refining basic skills (for project managers, or administrators, or basic training for users) than you get swapping out old tools for new ones.

In general you should only swap out technologies when there are specific essential features in the new set that simply cannot be implemented on the old.

Unfortunately, learning to use old tools is not glamorous. Buying new fancy toys is exciting… but it is also expensive and can cost more (in time and money and effort) than switchover is worth.

I could bore you for hours with horror stories of large corporations that literally spend hundreds of millions of dollars on major system overhauls and after three years of solid effort, had nothing to show for their efforts but embarrassingly empty coffers. In the end, the only people who made money were the consultants and tool vendors.

Ultimately, buying the best hammer in the world will not guarantee that you build a good house. Buying the best code generator in the world does not mean you will be able to write good code. Having newer more expensive tools is fun, but if you did not have a clear problem up front to justify the purchase of the tool, you are probably just paying a lot of money hoping the new technology will solve something.

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There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch

In the 1980′s a landmark book was published entitled QUALITY IS FREE. It was written by Phil Crosby and was one of those textbooks that help change quality as we know it today. The point Crosby was making was that quality pays for itself… but like most things it really isn’t free.

The is an acronym that has been popular since the 1950′s. TANSTAAFL. A phrase was coined by Science Fiction giant Robert A Heinlein, and the acronym stands for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.”

Really. Nothing is free. Executives who worry about the bottom line know this.

It takes money to make money. You have to make investments up front, in order to reap benefits and profits later on.

The same is true for Quality. You have to invest money to SAVE money.

In Quality, the investments you have to make are in training, and actions related to quality, such as measurement systems, reporting, inspections, tools. Once you establish a quality infrastructure (the Cost of Quality – COQ), then you can start to reap the rewards (by reducing the Cost of Poor Quality – COPQ).

I find it strange that executives get this with investments and stock and capital, but so many of them lose the idea with respect to quality. They think quality really is free and they want the results without investing anything at all.

Unfortunately, it ain’t free. In the same way you cannot reap profits if you never really bought the stock when it was low, neither can you reap the savings from lowering COPQ, if you never made the investments in quality to begin with.


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Why Another Quality Initiative?

For the first ten or fifteen years that I worked in the high-tech industry, one thing about Quality programs was that they seemed transient. No sooner was one Quality program implemented that two or three years later another would appear with a new set of slogans and methods to replace it. It troubled me that Quality seemed to wash over organizations in successive waves when most of them had the same basic message. These new initiatives with their own particular jargon and new training classes seemed to be either ineffective or exorbitant wastes of time and money. Every time a new Quality initiative appeared I asked “WHY?”

Over the next decade working in IT, I noticed different things. I saw a number of companies that I worked for achieve great technological or marketing successes, only to lose it all a few years later to another competitor or product with which they could not compete. The trouble was that they had achieved critical success by pushing hard to develop new products that set them apart, but after achieving their goals, they backed off and languished to enjoy their success. Shortly thereafter other companies caught up and passed them by. The market, they said, was “cyclical”. But I saw that it was their attitudes that cycled. Sprint, walk, sprint, walk. It was when they grew proud of themselves and sat on their laurels that they lost what they had gained and had to sprint again to regain their position in the market.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that the same cycles existed within companies. In the same way that businesses have to keep up with changing business demands and technology, by reinventing themselves every five to seven years, so too must quality programs be renewed.

Quality initiatives, regardless of their focus or flavor, methodology or tools, have in common that they solve problems and get people to focus on their work in a way that highlights reduction of defects or variation. But just as the nature of competition changes, so do the problems that we face. If one implements a quality program to solve one set of problems and the system works, one cannot sit on one’s laurels and be proud of that fact. New problems will appear to replace the older ones. And the new problems may require new methods or techniques that differ from those so recently established.

People change; business changes; technology advances. Like the story of Alice in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice through the Looking Glass” when she sees the Red Queen running and running by not going anywhere. When asked why, the Red Queen replied, “Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Things change and move around us. If we don’t run and constantly renew what we do and HOW we do it, the world will pass us by.

I have since grown comforted by companies that roll out recurring waves of Quality initiatives. While these programs seem new, they’re primarily refocusing our efforts on things we have started to take for granted. Such companies are moving, changing and reinventing themselves. They’re the ones who are staying ahead of the game by changing themselves before changes are forced upon them from external influences. These are the companies who are not satisfied with their current levels of success and will ride the wave to new ones.

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Quality and Agile

The focus on quality has evolved over the years as new approaches have been developed, tested, abandoned, and replaced. In fact, there are multiple frameworks that have different fanatically loyal user bases which seem to compete or contrast with one another. These include Six Sigma, Performance Excellence (Malcolm Baldrige), CMMI, ITIL, ISO, Agile and more. In turn, each of these has sub-variants that can differ substantially in form and flavor. In most cases, many overlap and might serve the same needs in different environments.

However, for software development there are two main camps: predictive and adaptive methodologies. (There is actually a continuum of approaches between these two antipodes, but for reasons of simplicity I will focus on the extremes at either end)

The predictive ones, like CMMI, are robust and comprehensive process driven approaches that emphasize planning, documentation and metrics. They are time-tested and effective; but they are formal, heavyweight approaches spanning multiple disciplines that take time to learn and institutionalize.

On the other hand, there are adaptive methods, like Agile, XP, or Scrum, which eschew the regimented, regulated, or bureaucratic methods of traditional models. They value flexibility and working code over other aspects of documentation, planning and reviews.

Granted their primary focus is to deliver software FASTER and they achieve that goal admirably, but how do these expediting approaches affect quality?

Many are concerned that some of the methods advocated by Agile dramatically increase the defect insertion rates.
The minimized amount of documentation makes it more difficult to find errors in requirements or design. Some Agile advocates go so far as to contend that requirements don’t need to even be written down, that the finished module reflects the requirements. Failure to inspect code further reduces defect detection. Minimized testing also reduces defect detection and containment.

However, others have documented increased quality using Agile methods. The introduction of smaller teams eliminates information when defects are passed from one group to another. Paired programming and test-before-coding techniques ensure better defect detection. Smaller teams and shorter iterations ensure faster fixes to defects when they are found.

There is no clear consensus. Both groups have valid points and criticisms of the contrasting methodologies. Advocates in both camps claim better quality. However, I think the difference is in the types of projects to which Agile are applied.

CMMI and predictive methods excel for large projects with large teams. In such cases additional documentation and testing is essential. Inspection becomes important and standard quality assurance methods work well.

Agile, on the other hand, works best on smaller projects with smaller teams. In such situations communication is faster and easier. Some shortcuts in documentation methods can be made and other techniques applied that substitute for the loss of formal document or code inspections. As noted before, one size does not fit all. These different strategies may well be suited to address the continuum of projects from large to small.

My questions for all of you are… “What are your experiences? How does Agile quality compare to that of traditional methods?”

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One Size Doesn’t Fit All

The adage “One Size Doesn’t Fit All” is so true.  It doesn’t work with clothes; one size fits all clothes always look like tents of some sort.  Doesn’t work with cars; a Prius is a poor substitute for a dump truck if you need to haul a lot of raw material and a bus doesn’t do well when travelling off the road. The same is true for software and training.  In each of these you have to deal with novices as well as experts and each group has different needs and expectations.

It is also true with Quality programs.  Despite what you may hear from consultants and experts, there is no single approach, process or methodology that will solve all your ills and problems.  Indeed, one of the problems that Quality and Process programs face is the expectation that this one new method will finally fix the issues with previous initiative and close the gaps and flaws of earlier programs.

The truth is that no one approach is a panacea, a cure all.  Some approaches are better for little problems.  Some work better to fix or optimize existing processes.  Others are best suited to developing new processes.  Still others focus on defect prevention.  And some of these overlap.

The best quality programs are those that avoid “monotheistic” approaches. The best strategy to achieve enduring quality is to have a tool-kit rather than the ultimate tool.  And the tools that are best suited often depend on the nature of the problems one is facing. A carpenter’s tool-kit has more than just a hammer.  It might contain a saw and a screwdriver, measuring equipment like a tape measure and a level, recording tools like a pencil or a chalk-line, so too should Quality tool-kits contain multiple tools of different types.

Indeed, there may be multiple tool-kits.  The tools used by a plumber are not all the same as those used by a carpenter or an electrician. In that same way tools for IT will not be the same as those used for manufacturing or finance.   Some are common to more than one type of problem; some are specialized or unique.

Of course one remembers that infomercial on TV that advertised the all-in-one tool that looks like a Frankenstein Swiss Army knife with power attachments, but such toys while interesting are often far more difficult to use and far more expensive than basic tools.

Once one has assembled an appropriate set of tools, the trick becomes one of training.  Purchasing the best and most expensive hammer in the world will not ensure that you will build the best house, or guarantee that you can build anything at all.  One must possess appropriate knowledge and have developed appropriate skills before the tools will be useful.  Moreover, it is as important to know WHEN to use a tool as it is to know HOW to use it.

Quality is like that.  One size doesn’t fit all. There are many tools and techniques that will work, some better than others, but there are almost always more ways to solve a problem than you need.  Success in achieving Quality is more dependent upon acquiring the right people with the right skills and then giving them the correct set of tools with the right training on HOW and WHEN to use them.

If you encounter a Quality or Process consultant who endorses or pushes a single approach while discrediting or eschewing others, be skeptical.  This guy is likely going to be selling a “Swiss army knife” of process and quality. Don’t limit yourself to one tool, one approach, or one methodology. Diversify; learn more about alternatives and you will find yourself better prepared to address a wider range or problems more effectively.

One size doesn’t fit all.  Don’t buy from anyone who tries to sell you something that’s advertised to be one.

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Welcome to the Launch of our new Blog!

Welcome to the launch of the Accelerated Quality Improvement Blog

We will regularly post articles related to process and quality here for your review and perusal.  We also invite any comments, feedback and discussions that you might offer.  In addition to submitting posts to these discussions, you can also send comments directly to us directly at info@aqionline.com

You interest and participation is important to us.  Thank you for coming. We hope you enjoy your stay.       :-)

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